Moral Economy vs. Political Economy Debate Revisited: The Case of the Vietnamese Peasants in the Mekong Delta



Moral Economy vs. Political Economy Debate Revisited:

The Case of the Vietnamese Peasants in the Mekong Delta





モラルエコノミーとポリティカルエコノミーの議論は、世界のさまざまな農民の経済生活 を理解する上で展開されてきた。その中で、「モラルエコノミー対ポリティカルエコノミー」

という枠組みは単純にすぎ、農民の経済生活はもっと複雑であるという議論がなされてき た。ベトナム最南端、メコンデルタの農民についても同様で、彼らの経済生活を理解するに は、ふたつの社会的空間、つまり、家族とそれ以外の社会関係の区別をすることが重要であ る。農業や商品の販売、農業以外の仕事の収入の使用、将来のための子どもの教育などは家 族単位で行われ、そこでは家族全員の経済的充足と安定が最優先される。そこでは、モラル エコノミーが機能していると言える。しかし、家族の外に出ると、他の村民は競争相手であり、

信用できない人であり、協力したくない人々である。そこでは、ポリティカルエコノミーの 原理が働いている。


moral economy, political economy, Vietnam, peasants, family

キーワード:モラルエコノミー、ポリティカルエコノミー、ベトナム、農民、家族 星槎大学紀要(Seisa Univ. Res. Bul.)共生科学研究 No.11 42〜53(2015)

星槎大学共生科学部 論 文

1 .Moral Economy vs. Political Economy Debate

Since the 1970’s peasant economic and political behavior have often been understood in the framework of two competing paradigms: the moral economy approach and the political economy approach. While many scholars consider the debate an important one that focused attention on peasant individual and collective choice (Feeny 1983), some have also criticized both approaches as in adequate and often too simplistic to explain peasant societies that they study (Ireson 1992; Evans 1988; Parker 1988). In recent years, the discussion has expanded to reflect the


global era. For instance, Edelman analyses transnational peasant movements of 21st century as a consequence of erosion of moral economy that functioned in traditional peasant societies (Edelman 2005; see also Scott 2005). In this article, I attempt to analyze the economic life of the Vietnamese peasants in the rural Mekong Delta in the light of “moral economy vs. political economy” framework, which, I believe, will shed light on the peculiarity of this region.

The contrast between the two positions of moral economy and political economy shows a theoretical debate of society vs. individual: whether the society presides over individual interests or individual interests are more important than the society as a whole. In the moral economists’

view, the most crucial factor that determines the village ethic is that it assures the subsistence of all village members, and for this purpose, village society is structured according to the norms of dependence (Scott 1976). While moral economists look at peasant villages as socially autonomous corporate groups, political economists, by contrast, focus on the individual and see village society as a sphere of conflicting individual interests. Popkin (1979, p.4) argues that “the exchanges between peasants are shaped and limited by conflicts between individual and group benefits,”

instead of reciprocity and the norm of dependency as moral economists suggest.

However, I argue that neither of the two models is sufficient to understand the economic behavior of the farmers in the contemporary rural Mekong Delta in Vietnam. One major problem with both models I find is that they assume the framework of “society vs. individual” exists in every society, and the systems work at all levels of the villagers’ economic and social lives. My findings suggest instead that there is a need to look at different levels, or spheres, of the villagers’

economic behaviors because a variety of logics may apply to different levels or in different spheres of one society, coexisting in one social space as a whole. Brocheux (1983) and Cheal (1989) also argue that peasant behavior is a more complex mixture of two models of moral economy and political economy, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive and may exist within one society.

In the case of the Vietnamese villages of this study, however, while both models are existent, they do not coexist at all levels of the society. Instead, each model explains two separate social spheres: family life and village society.

Research for this study was carried out in several villages around Can Tho City, the central city in the Mekong Delta which is located about 170 kilometers from Ho Chi Minh City.

2 .Economic Life of the Vietnamese Peasants

Agriculture and the sale of agricultural products are the biggest and the most important part of a farmer’s economic life in villages in the rural Mekong Delta. Farming is the family’s job, and all members are responsible for working on the family farm. Except those under the age of fifteen or so, children must help their parents in agricultural activities, too, and they continue to work on their parents’ farm while they are single. When they marry, have an independent household, and


acquire land of their own, they begin farming independently, but they still help on their parents’

farm when necessary at specific times of year, such as rice harvesting season, which demands more labor in a short period of time. Not only children, but also children-in-law work in the parents’ farm on these occasions. Children say, “it is not a burden, because it is an obligation for the children. We have to help our parents.” “Obligation” is a word children often use when talking about helping their parents.

The father and mother are the main forces of family farming. The father often takes the central role, but the mother plays an important role, too, although the situation varies from one family to another. Fathers, who usually make important decisions about agricultural activities, often discuss with other family members before coming to the conclusion. They consult their wives and children, the youngest son in particular, who normally will stay in the same house upon marriage and will care for the land in the future. Particularly when the father is old and the youngest son is already grown-up and has taken over the major farming responsibilities, the two usually decide together how they will conduct business in the future. It is commonly through their fathers and mothers that children learn about farming, but today, as new techniques and technologies of agriculture are increasingly employed, the children’s knowledge and ideas are also valued.

While adult children help their parents in farming, married siblings and other relatives seldom help each other with farming tasks. Siblings, if they live close to each other, often meet one another and exchange information and ideas in daily conversations or on special occasions when they get together such as weddings, but they seldom cooperate in actual agricultural activities. I have not observed anyone other than children and young grandchildren working on parents’ land, nor have I seen adult siblings helping each other on their farms.

Since family members are the only source of labor, their absence often causes a problem.

In one family I met, after the children married and left the village, the parents had no more labor to rely upon, so they changed their fruit garden into a vegetable farm which requires less labor. Vegetables brings in much less income than fruit and the couple find it hard to have their ends meet, but they say they have no choice because they have no one to help on their farm.

Therefore, most parents try to keep at least one child in their village to take care of their farm.

Some families where there are not enough children or children are still too young to work hire local laborers for special seasons if there is more work than they can manage by themselves, and if they can afford the expense. However, this option is reserved for rather wealthy families in particular seasons, and not many families can afford the expense of hiring labor.

While married siblings do not help each other much in cultivation of their land, the task of going to the market to sell the produce is often shared among them. The market is a floating one on a major river a few kilometers from the villages, and farmers bring their fruit and vegetables on their boats. It is usually, though not exclusively, a women’s job to sell fruit from their orchards and vegetables from their farms in wholesale markets, and sisters and sisters-in-law often


cooperate. This is a difficult job in the current market situation when prices fluctuate rapidly and may drop unexpectedly, and sisters’ cooperation in negotiating with buyers is crucial. Negotiating prices with buyers is not an easy task, and sisters discuss, make strategies, and work together in negotiations again and again before finally selling their fruit and vegetables. When the sisters and sisters-in-law go together, they share related expenses, such as the cost of oil for the boat’s motor, but the income from the sales is divided according to the amount of produce each one brought and sold because they belong to different households. Sisters sell not only produce from their own farms, but also from their parents’ and unmarried brothers’ farms.

While women normally engage in selling fruit and vegetables at the floating market, men sell rice at rice mills in the villages, where cooperation between households within a family is also visible. The family is important not only in the actual selling but also as a source of market information. After people come back from the market or rice mills, other members of the family come to learn about the daily market situation, and discuss their future sales, such as when they should plan their next sale.

People other than family members do not normally help each other in farming or market sales, unless they are hired laborers. Farmers say that they do not like to share their agricultural knowledge with other people in the village, nor do they wish to cooperate with their neighbors because people have different ideas, and other people are not always trustworthy. One man says, “I would rather depend on myself and my own experiences.” For the same reason, not many people actively participate in Farmer’s Union, which exists in each village. This means that a family has few outside people to depend on in times of difficulty or when faced with financial problems. As a result, family cooperation is particularly important when starting cultivation of new rice crops or a greater number of crops, or in planting new kinds of fruit trees in orchards which requires investment and taking risks.

While agriculture is at the center of most villagers’ economic lives, some villagers in the Mekong Delta today spend some or much of their everyday lives in jobs outside of agriculture.

Since it is becoming more difficult for farmers to earn enough income from agricultural activities, some seek jobs outside of agriculture to provide enough earnings for their families. In fact, inhabitants of these villages are engaged in a variety of occupations outside of agriculture. Also, as the region develops rapidly and with urbanization and industrialization taking place in a large scale, a growing number of young people are working in commercial and industrial sectors. Many are part-time or seasonal jobs, such as construction work, bricklaying, factory work, market selling, and tailoring, that supplement agricultural activities, the main source of the villagers’

income. Some people also work full-time as factory workers, teachers, and government officials, and the salaries from these jobs serve as the primary source of income for these people and their families, even if they still work on their farms after work or on weekends.

In the rural Mekong Delta, the work outside of family farming is considered primarily to be for


the sake of their family’s finance. People do not work to earn their own money. Just like income from agricultural activities, which is spent for the household, any income from other jobs is also supposed to be shared by the family, rather than spent individually by each worker. In the case of single children who live with their parents, it is commonly expected that they share their income with their parents regularly. For example, a female worker at a seafood processing factory gives most of her income to her parents to be used by the family, and she uses only a little bit of it to pay for transportation to go to work. Another female garment factory worker keeps part of her salary for herself, mainly to buy clothes to go to work, but then brings the rest of the money to her parents. As apparent in her comment “because I work for my family”, it is natural for her to give the money to her parents and spend it together with other members of her family. Sharing income with the family is regarded as an “obligation.”

It is not only daughters who bring their income home and spend it with their parents. In one family three sons work as bricklayers, and they sometimes go to other provinces and stay there for a few weeks to work. However, the oldest son tells me they bring most of their income to their mother, after they use part of it to cover necessary expenses such as transportation fees to go to work sites or food they buy while away from home. Their mother is very proud of her sons:

“Of course, my sons always bring their income to me, because I am the mother of the family!”

Whether the sons actually give all their income to their mother in reality cannot be confirmed, but statements by both son and mother show that they both think sons should bring money to their mother.

Many single children share their income with their parents even if they do not live with their parents. These children send money home regularly. In one family in another village, two daughters work as seamstresses in a garment factory near Ho Chi Minh City, and they send money home regularly every month when they receive their salary. The mother says the daughters went to work in order to help the family, so they should share their income with the family. I never had a chance to meet the daughters, who returned to the village only once or twice a year, so it is not clear what portion of their whole salary they keep for their own living expenses and needs and how much they send to their parents. However, according to the mother, the money that the daughters send back is enough to help with family finances.

In other cases, there are working children who do not always share their income with their parents, if they live separately. For example, in the case of one family, one twenty-two-year- old son works in a cake factory in another province, and a twenty-year-old daughter works in a cigarette factory near Ho Chi Minh City. Both children are single but since they work in different provinces and cannot live with the parents, the parents do not expect that the children share their income with the parents regularly. The parents say that the son’s salary is low and not much is left after he pays for his own living expenses, so they do not ask him to send money home regularly. However, although the children do not spend their salary regularly for the family, they


occasionally send money back home, to help the parents and their younger siblings. In other cases, children bring money home when they return, on such occasions as the New Year. In fact, it is rare for single children not to give any part of their salaries to their parents, even if they do not live with them.

There are some cases in which workers spend their salary more independently, although these are rather special cases. In one family, a son helps the family with a wholesale business, and at the same time, has a job in a bread factory. He lives in town, in the family’s warehouse near a wholesale market, and takes care of the family business. In his case, since the wholesaling business is a family business he gives all the income from this job to his parents to be used for the household. However, the money he earns from the bread factory he keeps for himself. He was raised by his aunt, and he gives a part of his own salary from the factory job to the aunt, but he does not spend it for his own family. He keeps the rest of the money for himself, and has bought a motorcycle with part of it. He saves the rest for the future. However, saving his income for his own use does not necessarily mean that he is more detached from his parents. Although the son earns his own income, which he can use for himself, he says he wants to stay single until he is around thirty-two, because he wants to help his parents in the family business. Once he gets married, he will build an independent household and will not be able to work for his parents, so he wants to make sure that the family business goes all right, before he becomes independent. His mother is happy that her son is obedient.

While single children share most of their income with their parents, when married, people usually spend their income for their own family and rarely share it with their parents because they constitute different households. An exception is the case of the youngest son who lives with his own parents after marriage and shares his income with them. Some studies in Asia have pointed out different expectations between working sons and daughters (e.g. Salaff 1995). However, there is not a big difference between males and females in the rural Mekong Delta in terms of what they are expected to contribute to their families through working outside of family farming.

Most examples that we have seen from the Mekong Delta show that the power and ability of the young in particular to work outside of family farming do not break the family bonds or lessen their responsibility and loyalty to the family financial welfare. In many families, sons and daughters work in order to help their family financially, mainly to supplement the income that their parents earn from agriculture. As it becomes more and more difficult to live only by farming, many of the young use their capabilities to work in other sectors so that they can fulfill their obligation and responsibility to sustain the economic well being of their parents and other family members.

3 .Village Social Life

We have seen that the family is tightly tied together as a central economic unit in villagers’


life. However, different picture emerges when we turn our eyes from the family sphere to the village society. As mentioned earlier, farmers often express their distrust with their neighbors or other villagers, saying, “We Vietnamese do not trust other people”, “I trust and depend on only my own experiences”, or “we do not cooperate with our neighbors in daily lives because we have different ideas”. In fact, it is rarely observed that neighbors cooperate in their everyday activities including farming. For example, once a year all villagers are supposed to repair the dirt paths that run through their hamlets along canals. Instead of all villagers cooperating and repairing the paths together at the same time, as would be expected in some other societies, in the rural Mekong Delta each household fixes about thirty meters in front of the house whenever it chooses, resulting in rather bumpy and uneven paths.

Apart from frequent comments by villagers about their distrust of their neighbors, and small observations such as uneven paths, we may not often encounter dramatic conflicts between neighbors in everyday life in these villages. However, after knowing the villagers for some time, we eventually realize that there is one area where tension is quite visible, and that is between rich and poor families. As we investigate how the villagers perceive their own village life and other villagers, it becomes clear that villagers categorize people by wealth, and make a clear distinction between rich and poor in the villages. For example, the family I lived with in one of the villages consider themselves poor, although they have one of the newest houses in the hamlet, and constantly contrast themselves with those they consider rich. To them, the rich are people with relatives in foreign countries, like their neighbor who has a daughter in the United States. One member of the family explains to me that if you have relatives in the United States you can be rich, because one US dollar is a lot of money in Vietnam. Then he goes on to say, “From the town of Binh Thuy (nearest town) to our village, when you see big houses on the road, most of them have overseas relatives. Some of them run their own business with the money they have.” It is a widely held belief that some people in the village are richer than others because they have families and relatives in foreign countries.

The villages around Can Tho City was an area where fighting was severe during the war with the US and North Vietnam, and many villagers fought for the old (South Vietnamese) government, while others supported the current (North Vietnamese and socialist) government. Some of the people who helped the old regime fled the country after the end of the war, fearing that they might be persecuted by the new leaders whom they fought against during the war. Most of these people who fled now live in the United States, Australia, or other countries. These emigrants, after having settled in the new country, send money back to their family and relatives in the villages.

Due to the currency rate and difference in living standards, a small sum of money in their adopted counties may go far in Vietnam, particularly in rural areas.

Curious about the existence of these “rich people” that the farmers talk about, I asked one old villager how many “rich” families there were in his hamlet. After thinking for a while and


counting one by one with his fingers, he concluded that there were twelve households. (There are over sixty households in his hamlet.) He thinks these “rich families” are different from ordinary villagers because “they are ‘fictional’ farmers.” “They have farms, but their children live overseas, and they can live on the money their children send from abroad, so they do farming only for fun, and not for living.” “Although,” he continues, “some of these families are still poor, because they waste their money in gambling.”

This man has a neighbor whose daughter followed her husband to California, where he fled after the war. The parents recall that the daughter left for California in the early 1980s. Although she comes back only once every five years after she left the country, she regularly sends money back home. Although it was not clear from my conversations with the parents how much money she sends on average as the amount varies greatly each time, it is visible that they owned things other villagers did not. For instance, their house was the only one in the hamlet to my knowledge that had a telephone in 2000, which most villagers could not afford due to the very high cost of having a line. (While I stayed in the village, this phone was designated as an emergency phone in case anything happened to me and I needed to call people in town.) The couple seldom calls their daughter except in case of emergency because international calls are very expensive in Vietnam, but they can receive her calls. During my stay in the village, they were repairing the front yard of their house, and covering it with cement blocks. At that time, my host family also wished to renovate the front yard, but did not have the money to do so. One afternoon, watching the couple working on the yard, the father of my host family told me, “they are wealthy enough to repair their yard because they have a family member in a foreign country.”

In fact, villagers whose family members live overseas do often have a better life, or at least have more financial security, than many of their neighbors. For instance, a sixty-three year old farmer explains why life is not difficult for his family. During the war, he and his brothers fought for the old government in Ca Mau Province, the southernmost province of Vietnam, from 1968 until the end of the war in 1975. His three brothers who left the country after the war now live in the United States. With overseas relatives, he confirms, his life is easier than his neighbors. The farmer says, “in case of financial difficulty, my daughter will write a letter to my brothers, and they will send money to us.” His house is not one of the newly built luxurious- looking cement ones that are emerging in the village, but a wooden one, which may not at first glance show his wealth.

However, when one looks more closely, one can tell that he is relatively well off, because the house is large with elaborate decorations, and the front yard is decorated with many bonsai plants, which are known to be expensive and generally considered a symbol of wealth in rural Southern Vietnam. I visited this house with my friends, and they said, “you see, they have a lot of bonsai, and that means they are very rich.”

While villagers with overseas relatives are normally considered rich, villagers without one consider their own families poor. In fact, my conversations with members of my host family


almost always revolved around the issue of poverty and how difficult their life was. For instance, the father of the family says, “In the past, my family was very poor, and life was very difficult.

Now, some of my children have good jobs, but we are still poor.” Although this villager’s house is one of the newest in the hamlet, and two children have stable jobs in the local government (though salaries in public sectors are not very high), the members of the family do not consider themselves wealthy. To them, the rich are other people like their neighbor, who have family members and relatives overseas and receive money from them, and hence do not have to work on the farm as hard as they do. Moreover, they believes they are not rich because they need to work so hard and still cannot earn enough to pay for necessary living expenses, including the taxes demanded by the government.

Those who consider themselves poor do not always have a peaceful relationship with those they consider rich. Many of these farmers often complain about rich people in the village. For example, when we were talking about these rich families, I asked one farmer if other villagers could borrow money from them. He answered, “They lend money at a very high interest. If you borrow money in the morning and return in the afternoon, it is all right. But after one day, you have to pay interests. For example, if you borrow four hundred thousand dongs, you have to pay an interest of thirty thousand dongs after one month.” Talking about private moneylenders, villagers constantly mention the high interest rate, nearly ten percent per month. The public bank also lends money to farmers, but the procedure of borrowing is complicated, and not many farmers have houses or land to mortgage, so many families end up borrowing from private lenders at high interest.

Though it is hard to give an exact figure, quite a few villagers say they have borrowed money from these private moneylenders. One of my host family’s neighbors borrowed but could not pay the debt, so she has given up her land to the lender. Now she cannot make enough money to get the land back, and it is a source of constant anxiety for her. Another woman regrets having borrowed money from a private moneylender at a high interest rate because she has not idea how she can repay and she now worries about money a great deal. Her mentally ill son damages other people’s houses and gardens, and in order to compensate she had to borrow money. The mother says their life is getting harder and harder and she worries a lot, and she starts to cry as she explains their difficult situation to me.

Farmers also complain that “rich” villagers do not help the poor. They think the wealthy are only interested in making more money and taking more from those who have less. One farmer says, “the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. It is a big problem in the village today that the difference between those who have money and those who don’t is becoming bigger and bigger.”

He goes on to complain that “the poor” want “the rich” to help them with money, but the latter seldom do so, and this has caused a division between members of the same village and hamlet.

He laments that people do not think about others and they are interested only in money and


keeping it only for themselves. Also, following the urban trend in Vietnam (Leshkowich 2011, 2015; Earl 2014) in recent years, new middle-class peasants have emerged, and the gap between those with resources and those without them is growing.

4 .Conclusion

Based on what we discovered in the economic lives of the villagers in the Mekong Delta, I argue that moral economy is more prominent than political economy in their family settings.

Many villagers are much more concerned with the welfare of the family than of the self, and one is often expected to sacrifice his/her own self for the sake of the financial well-being of the whole family. Individualism is therefore not pervasive within the family. Villagers see themselves more as members of their family than as individuals. Cooperation is strongest within each household.

The extended family of parents and married children is also united in many aspects of life, too, although since each child belongs to an independent household, financial cooperation between siblings may be weaker.

In agriculture, members of a family, occasionally including married ones, cooperate in the daily economic activities, share daily information and knowledge on agriculture, help each other with selling the produce, and work together on their parents’ land. It is a primary concern of the members to secure income cooperatively in agricultural activities for their own households and also for their extended families. Income from jobs outside of family farming is also spent for the whole family rather than for the earners themselves. If they are not married they generally share the money they make with their parents and siblings, and if married the money is spent for their own households and their young children.

However, on the village level, political economy explains better the economic and political life of the villagers. The norm of dependency is therefore little observed in this society. In contrast to the village life that moral economists illustrate, the security of all villagers is not the concern of most, unless they are officially in positions such as village committee chairman. Families are often in competition with each other, and some are successful in accumulating wealth, which has provoked the jealousy of others and caused conflicts between village members.

Different families do not cooperate much in agricultural activities, and people do not like to share information and knowledge with other villagers. They seldom work together on the production and sales of products, and other village activities. There is little sense of community in the villages. As mentioned earlier, the villagers confess they usually do not trust others and prefer to rely on their own knowledge and capacity instead of depending on other villagers.

My research suggests that there is a need to be aware of the difference between self and family.

The “individual unit” in villages in the rural Mekong Delta is the family and not self. It is the family and not the individual that seeks its own interest in the villages. Each family forms one


interest group, but there is less sense of individualism found in each family member. In this sense I follow Peletz (1983) in his criticism on Popkin’s argument that it presumes the concepts of self and personhood exist in all societies.

It is arguable that kin and relatives outside of the extended family inhabit a status somewhere between family and village society, given that they do not cooperate much in daily activities, but nevertheless share a certain group membership that is manifested in rituals, such as death anniversaries of ancestors. Ties are less strong between affinal relatives and many of the serious problems I know between relatives were between affinal ones that often originated in conflicts between daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law. Perhaps kins outside of extended family function in both moral and political economies depending on the situation. In this sense, as Bailey (1991) argues, moral economy and political economy may exist not as a dichotomy but as a continuum within the society. However, in the case of the villages in the rural Mekong Delta, there exists quite a sharp contrast between within family and outside society, with a relatively narrow blurred boundary between the two.

The problem I find in Popkin’s argument is that he is not aware of the importance of the family as the basic economic unit, in which moral economy functions. In his discussion on political economy of Vietnamese peasants, Popkin, who stresses the importance of self, does also refer to

“family”, but his argument on self and family is confusing. While he often uses the concepts of

“self” as “individual”, he sometimes refers to the “family” as a unit that seeks its own interest, too, and he is not explicit about the difference between the two. For example, he states, “a peasant is primarily concerned with the welfare and security of self and family” (1979: 31).

Thus, both moral economy and political economy exist in the villagers’ economic activities.

In this sense, I agree with Nguyen Van Suu (2014) that both orientation exist in the Vietnamese peasants’ economic life ( Nguyen‘s study comes from the Red River Delta). The important thing to note, however, is that they exist in different spaces of lives of the farmers in the Mekong Delta, and there is a need to look at the family. Moral economy vs. political economy in this situation is not the question of “society vs. individual,” but that of “society vs. family.”


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